Over Nick Lowe's 40-year career, the puckish singer-songwriter has witnessed first-hand the rise and fall of pub rock, punk rock, new wave, and alt-country. Throughout, he's maintained his dry wit and collegial nature, which has led him to collaborations with artists from The Damned to Huey Lewis. Lately, Lowe has been taking it easier, spending years between tours before releasing low-key, likeable retro-pop records like his latest, At My Age. Lowe recently spoke to The A.V. Club about the heady days of the mid-'70s UK pop scene, and the slow process of making At My Age, which was recorded during a time when Lowe lost both his parents and became a first-time father himself.
The A.V. Club: Why did it take so long after The Convincer to get a new album out?
Nick Lowe: Well, I couldn't get in the groove, really, to start doing the record properly. I kept on having these events come up which threw me off the scent. Not the least of which was that I acquired a son. [Laughs.] Somewhat unexpectedly, if not completely unexpectedly. So that was quite an event, and sort of put me off a bit. And also other things, which were much grimmer. They're the sort of things that happen to everybody, but I just seemed to get them one after the other. They just piled in. So I recorded in dribs and drabs. I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing, but it's the first time I've done a record like that, really.
AVC: What's it like becoming a father so late in life?
NL: Well, I suppose there's no time to become a father when it's not a shock to the system, but because I've led an almost entirely selfish existence for the last 40 years, it has been quite difficult adjusting. I've only really had to worry about myself, prior to my son's arrival. Now I have to worry about him, and of course his dear mama. It's pretty tough, because I'm not used to getting up early in the morning, and being so incredibly tired. It's a new kind of tiredness. But he's a lovely fellow. He might be a blooming nuisance, but he is a lovely fellow.
AVC: At My Age is your third straight album in a sort of "nocturnal country-soul" style. What appeals to you about that laid-back, soft sound?
NL: Well, I think it suits me. I find it hard to do the raucous thing that I did when I was younger. I write all these songs on the acoustic guitar, and I record them that way. It just feels comfortable and sensible to me. I can get across what I need to. That's purely it.
AVC: The new album also seems especially sweet and hopeful. Is that where your head's at these days?
NL: It's just the way this one happened to come out. The interesting thing about doing a record in dribs and drabs is that you don't start off with any concept at all. I mean, obviously, I recorded lots of stuff that I didn't use, and most of it's awful. Just going through the stuff I did record, these songs were the best, and so I didn't really know what sort of mood the album was going to have, or what it was going to say. But "sweet and hopeful" is good enough for me.
AVC: How did you pick the cover songs?
NL: I recorded this album, what I would describe as "recreationally." That is, I'd phone everybody up and say "Are you doing anything tomorrow? Can you come in and record something? I've got a half-baked idea and a couple of covers. Let's just go to the studio and see what happens." I have lots of music-loving friends who are very pleased to send me songs that they've run across that they think I could do, and that's where I get quite a lot of my covers. A few I find myself, of course. It's really a question of if I feel I can make the song my own, and make myself believe that I actually wrote it. That's the sort of cover I like to use. Also, if it's a song that people haven't heard millions of times before. But even if I was really prolific—which I'm not—I think I'd always put at least a couple of covers on my record. I think it's a sort of healthy thing to do. It shows that you're not totally self-obsessed.
AVC: One of the things that's interesting about the way your sound has settled down is that when you were younger, you went through a period where you jumped around from one style to another and started a new band almost every month, from Brinsley Schwarz to Tartan Horde to the Disco Brothers. Why were you so restless?
NL: Well, I was just trying to buck the trend, really. I've always felt quite like an outsider. I don't really belong in the mainstream, and I quite like that. Back then, when I got my chance to go in the studio and I was trying to learn how to produce records, I found it advantageous to keep on changing what I was doing so no one could tie me down, I suppose. Also back then, I'm talking about the mid-'70s, I really felt that something was going to change the accepted notions of what was interesting in pop music. I'd just left a band, and the record company I was with was getting ready to have me on their books as a solo artist, and I didn't really want to be a sort of earnest singer-songwriter of my own material. I wanted to be, you know, a bit more of a mischief-maker.
AVC: Did the dawn of punk provide you an opportunity to do more than you might have?
NL: Oh, I think so, yeah. I don't think I would have got anywhere, really. Well, maybe I would, but as I say, what was I being offered? When it was my turn, so to speak. When I was a kid, I did my learning in private. We all did. It wasn't like today, where if you've got any talent at all, you're sucked up straightaway and put on the TV, and you don't have any time to learn how to do it. Back when I started, there were lots of ways you could learn how to write a song and how to put a show together, and it could take years before anyone noticed you. It was a drag at the time, but obviously quite useful, in the long run.
So when it was my turn, I didn't want to be, as I said, an earnest singer-songwriter, because I didn't feel at all earnest. Then along came this change in direction, grassroots, and it enabled people like me and a lot of my friends and colleagues to run riot, really. And the more we ran riot, the more fun it became. Yes, so it was a very good opportunity. You could try anything out, and no one could pin you down. That was what was exciting about that time.
AVC: You were one of the first people to go into the studio with The Damned and Elvis Costello and The Pretenders and a lot of other now-legendary musicians. Back then, who would you say was the most exciting act that you saw?
NL: Well The Damned were really good, and Elvis was Elvis. Ian Dury and The Blockheads were really, really great. You know, the actual punk music, I didn't care for at all. I thought it was all rubbish, really. It was the attitude, the way that things were being shaken up, that excited me more. I still liked people who were good, you know? Who could actually play. Even though The Damned were a punk group, they played great. As did Elvis, and as did Ian. They were the ones who interested me. Not some of those daft punkers, especially the ones who had people who were actually pretty good musicians sort of pretending to play badly. That was just so stupid, and missed the point completely, I thought. So it was the people who were true to themselves, I think, that were the exciting ones.
AVC: You've spent a good deal of time in bands. Could you see yourself getting back into a group again, or is it just too difficult to combine your vision with someone else's?
NL: Yeah, I think it probably is for me now. Little Village was really good fun. Unfortunately, the record we did was no good. I suppose on some level, it worked, but Warner Brothers kind of gave us too much time to do it. We should have been forced to do it much quicker, and I think it would have been better. When we all first got together, of course, it was to do John Hiatt's record, Bring The Family, which was really great. But we only had four days to do that, and it was John's record, so he was front and center. When we came back to do the Little Village thing, none of us would step forward, you know. That's the problem with a group, really. It has to be a benign dictatorship. There really does have to be someone in charge, even if it's someone that the rest can all unite in hating. [Laughs.] It's a funny thing, the way a band works, the internal politics. But I think that I'd have trouble being in a band. I'd probably have to be the leader of it, and that's not quite the same thing.
AVC: "Nick Lowe and the…"
NL: Yeah, yeah.
AVC: If you had a choice between cutting a really great album or a really great single, which would you choose?
NL: Oh, a really great single, I think. [Pause.] Although, wait a minute. No, I answered that rather quickly. Well, you see, the sort of albums I like are the ones where no one song particularly stands alone. I like the sort of albums where you start at the beginning, and you listen to the whole thing, and there aren't any fillers. All the tracks actually bolster each other up, like the one that comes after the one before will make the one before sound better. So it does actually sound like one giant single.
All I can say is that back in the day, when I was producing a lot of records, I seemed to get gold records and awards and things all the time. They used to come by post, and I didn't know what they were. It almost didn't matter, it seemed completely irrelevant, so I sent them all over to my mother. And they were extremely ugly, these things. I mean, I know they represented something, but they were extremely ugly-looking, and I didn't really want to put them on the wall or anything like that. And then, unfortunately, when both my parents died in these last few years, I inherited all these hideous gold records and things. But amongst them was a gold 45 that I'd gotten in the UK for producing an Elvis Costello single called "Oliver's Army." And it's such a cool item to have, this gold 45 RPM single. I couldn't believe that I'd had it amongst that collection and I'd never realized it. I don't think they make them any more. Well, of course they don't make them any more.
AVC: Most bios of you now mention that you became a millionaire when a cover of "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding" appeared on The Bodyguard's soundtrack. But is that money still holding out? Or are you just about through it?
NL: Oh no, it went a long time ago. [Laughs.] It's amazing how not-very-far a little less than a million dollars will go. That's what I think I got. God knows what some people got for that record. Especially the guy who wrote the B-side of "I Will Always Love You" and got his album cut as well. So very nice indeed. But no, I managed to make two albums on that money really, and toured with them both, you know, with a band. Staying at reasonably good hotels, where we wouldn't get our stuff stolen. I could pay my guys right. So I financed all that, bought a couple of suits, took a couple of people to dinner, and that really took care of it.
But the thing is, my career had stalled a bit up 'til then, and I'd just found this new way of recording myself and writing songs for myself when this check came through the door, and hey, presto! I was able to realize it. If it hadn't gotten that money, I don't think I would have been able to. And once you're seen to be back in the game again—which I desperately needed to be—other things come to you. Even though the Bodyguard money per se is gone, that led to other things, and other people have cut my songs, and you know, my fortunes started changing for the better.